951 - Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges 'Back To Back' (1959)

My Rating: 3.14 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/--

Favourite Tracks: Loveless Love, Wabash Blues
Least-Favourite Tracks: St. Louis Blues

There’s been no shortage of regal epithets in the music world, though not all have been deserved. Artists like Queen and Prince have lived up to their royal aspirations, though others like King and Princess have proved to be nothing more than pretenders to the throne. (And don’t even get me started on “Lady” Gaga). Edward “Duke” Ellington, earning his moniker as a youth on account of his snappy dress-sense, belongs firmly in the first category, however it’s still something of a surprise to find this particular album in the Top 1000.

For starters, it’s not really fair to describe it as an Ellington album. The main players here are Johnny Hodges & Harry “Sweets” Edison while Ellington seems content to sit in the background. Make that very far in the background… could they not fit the piano in the studio or something? It’s so quietly recorded that it sounds as if he’s out in the hallway. It’s not a typical Ellington big band line-up either but a more intimate small combo setting. Moreover, there are no Ellington compositions here as all the songs are classic blues numbers from the pre-war era.

So what’s so special about a bunch of jazzers knocking out a load of old blues numbers? On the face of it, not a lot – however the more you listen to this album, the more you realise what an extraordinary job they make of it. In one sense, the blues offers a fairly limited scope for original improvisation yet the inventiveness & imagination shown in the soloing here is hugely impressive. I’ve always thought that good improvisation was all about playing the right note at the right time & that’s exactly what you find here. Moreover each performer has his own unique character and the more I listened to the interplay between these differing styles, the more enjoyable I found it.

I’ve read some criticism of Ellington’s playing on this album, suggesting that he was just going through the motions & didn’t put much into it. You only have to listen to his piano solos on Loveless Love, Wabash Blues or Basin Street Blues to realise what a load of cobblers that is. It is certainly a laidback, sometimes minimalist performance but his unusual chord inversions & the effortless ease with which his solo progressions dance around the melody were a highlight of this recording for me. Another standout performance comes courtesy of Harry “Sweets” Edison, a much-underrated player who somehow manages to play the blues with trumpet solos that have a smiling, winking, feel-good quality. Add in Johnny Hodges’ silky-smooth alto sax holding down the melodies & some fine guitar work from Les Spann & it’s pretty hard to fault the musicianship.

It’s also a very accessible album for people who might not typically listen to jazz. There are no tricky solos, the progressions are all simple blues (though admittedly more jazz-blues than blues-jazz) and it has a mellow, after-hours feel throughout. You can stick it on the next time the family come to dinner & it’ll breeze gently past without ruffling any feathers, but take time out to listen closer & you’ll find it has hidden depths.


Anonymous said...

Back to Back and Side to Side ....Are two of my favorite CD's...Real laid back feel...Got to Love it

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